Hell is empty and all the devils are here. Hide on the promenade, etch a postcard. Everyone who’s ever been to one can testify that the British seaside town can be a dispiriting place to spend time. But few have chronicled the experience like David Seabrook. Originally published by Granta in 2002, All the Devils Are Here has been out of print for some time, acquiring the cult cachet which comes with being hard to find (I took my copy from Magdalen College library, during an illicit midnight visit). The vague details of Seabrook’s life add to the outsider allure; rarely published, he wrote his books longhand, and the majority of his writing is now considered lost. He spent his career scratching round worrying at details of unsolved crimes and messy lives, feuded with Stewart Home, and died relatively young. In their brief yet curious biography (more of which later), Seabrook’s publishers state that ‘the handwritten pages of All The Devils are Here came to [our] attention’, a rather unusual formulation designed to add intrigue.
All the Devils are Here could loosely be described as psychogeography, although as it progresses it leans more towards the former than the latter half of that term. There are hints of Stewart Home’s milieu, and David Peace’s fondness for the language of the hard-boiled thriller, the corrupt talk of bent coppers and reporters. The setting is the seaside towns of Kent, specifically a demi-monde which lurks behind the outward gentility of towns like Margate and Broadstairs. Seabrook roams the streets, chasing down glimpses of 70 year old rent boys and nightclub hostesses, occasionally giving us glimpses of his own life (‘It’s six years since I last came out here. Six years this summer, not long after my fiancée’s funeral (I wasn’t invited)’, always maintaining that detective novel tone.
In Invisible Republic (1997), Greil Marcus described the folklorist Alan Lomax travelling across the American South and Midwest, recording songs and stories which bore traces of the ‘old, weird America’, remnants of the country that existed before the homogenising impact of the post-War boom.
Seabrook attempts something similar within his own patch, looking for the idiosyncrasies and forgotten stories unique to the Kentish seaside. In particular he is drawn to the dark side, hushed up scandals and forgotten murders, the worm in the apple that grows in the garden of England.
All the Devils Are Here begins relatively conventionally. We open in Margate, with Seabrook examining the mouldering remains of Dreamworld, an amusement park which opened in 1920. We immediately see Seabrook’s preoccupation with the shabby and faded, but also his ability to identify the duality of these towns. Margate was at once a place for popular leisure and genteel recuperation – convalescents frequently came to the town to recover, and, indeed, around the time that Dreamworld opened, TS Eliot was staying there, recovering from a nervous breakdown, just prior to his literary breakthrough. He referenced the town in the Fire Sermon section of The Wasteland (‘on Margate sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing‘), while his wife Vivien wrote ‘Margate is rather queer, and we don’t dislike it‘. The high and low interact, strange connections are formed…
From Margate we move to Rochester, and another literary icon, Dickens, who made the town his home for the ‘largely unhappy’ final decade and a bit of his life. Seabrook astutely recognises the hypocrisy of the heritage Victoriana which has revived the town’s economy since the Seventies, with businessmen and schoolchildren impersonating chimney sweeps, and buying into sickly myths of respectability. Seabrook here draws a distinction between ‘historical time’ and ‘heritage time’, which Rochester now exists in. Although, looking at his next destination, the derelict former naval dockyard of Chatham, who can blame it? Better retro than necro.
So far, so conventional, but Seabrook’s narrative gradually becomes more fluid, sliding into interesting juxtapositions and conjunctions. The book moves back and forth in time, from the history to literature, frequently returning to the figure of Dickens, whose shadow looms over much of the text. Seabrook seeks out those with a connection to the pre-war world, recording meetings with locals who remember Crippen, or pass on legends of Wilkie Collins. Here, Seabrook parades shadowy figures, such as Dr Arthur Albert Tesler, an extravagant fraudster with possible ties to the German secret service and Oswald Mosely, as well as to Audrey Hepburn’s father. Tesler lived in a magnificent colonial mansion in Broadstairs, which Seabrook also connects with John Buchan and others. Tesler was forced to flee Kent in 1938, amid questions about his loyalties and business practices. In September 1944, in perfect local paper style, the Thanet Express reported that ‘many Thanet people have read with interest this week reports received from Bucharest‘, that Telser had been killed on the Transylvanian border, whilst attempting to flee into Hungary with a passport signed by Hitler. His home becomes a nexus for Seabrook to discuss the British traitors of World War Two, notably Oswald Mosely and William Joyce, better known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’.
It is around this point that Seabrook seems to abandon the ‘geography’ aspect entirely, his narrative now driven by mental associations. A section on the alcoholic Carry On star Charles Hawtrey segues into the story of Freddie Mills, the lightweight boxing champion, television personality and shady club owner who was found dead in his car in mysterious circumstances in 1965. His story, which blends light entertainment, boxing, the gangland, the mixing of high and low society, drinking and (rumoured, illicit) homosexuality, is pretty much the purest distillation of Seabrook’s interests. It’s an interesting story but, sadly, aside from Mills having once interacted onscreen with Hawtrey, it’s hard to see what it has to do with the rest of the book.
Even worse, Mills’ story acts as a stepping off point for Seabrook to launch into his other obsession, the unsolved ‘nude murders’ which took place in London between 1964-65. Seabrook’s second book, a thoroughly nasty piece of work called Jack of Jumps (which the publisher’s bio bizarrely refers to as a novel here) dealt with the subject of ‘Jack the Stripper’ more thoroughly, but the extended, and frankly irrelevant, treatment of the murders here exposes two flaws in Seabrook’s writing. The first is a willingness to believe tall stories, and a corresponding lack of authorial care, which has been exposed by Stewart Home in his review of the book, preserved online at 3am Magazine. The second is the lack of dignity with which he treats his subjects. His language here is tame compared to Jack of Jumps (rightly described as having been written with ‘the relish of a necrophiliac’ by the Daily Telegraph), but we still get phraseology like ‘enough corpses to fill a knocking shop for necrophiles’, while a serial murderer of women is described as ‘quirky’ and ‘a tease’. Seabrook’s desire to identify himself as an outsider, a provocateur, and his love of the un-PC language of Seventies newsrooms and cop shops, is prioritised over the humanity of the individuals he describes, preventing them from coming alive in his work. Would this pass the editorial process for a new book? I’m not so sure.
All the Devils Are Here is a ragged, intriguing book; generally, its anecdotal and digressive style fits the liminal, murky space which the narrative attempts to chart, but at times Seabrook loses his grip on the tale, and comes across as more of a pub bore, in the later stages particularly. As an obscure, out-of-print title, there was a thrill in the illicit knowledge contained within, and a pleasure in spotting fellow readers (Luke Haines’ album Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, for example, features at least two songs which borrow heavily from Seabrook). It is still sui generis; free from the distancing academic overtones of psychogeography, too urban to be nature writing, too much of a loner to be landscape punk. In the light of day, and in a strangely pastel new cover, much of the intrigue remains, but the flaws in Seabrook’s work are magnified.
David Seabrook was born in 1960 and spent most of his life in Kent, where he studied Proust at the University of Canterbury. A marked outsider, he drew inspiration from artists who operated outside prevailing literary fashion, those who persisted when nobody was listening. His writings, ranging from tributes to unheralded authors to studies of tabloid crimes, were all committed to longhand, seldom found any publishing outlets, and are now considered lost. At the turn of the century, the handwritten pages of All the Devils Are Here came to Granta’s attention and the book was published in 2002. I 2009, Seabrook’s body was discovered in his Canterbury flat. He had published only one further work, the novel Jack of Jumps.
Thom Cuell has left the building.
Image of burning debris from burned pier on Margate beach by Nick Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24488466